The debate about whether to arm the Syrian rebels is centered around the question which groups are “good” rebels (those who favor democratic regimes and the United States) or “bad” rebels (various kinds of jihadists). The Obama administration is widely reported to be reluctant to aid Syrian rebels due to the difficulty of identifying “leaders who are committed to a unified, democratic Syria that respects minority rights” as opposed to “militants who might turn them against Western interests.” In Dissent, Michael Walzer finds that his readers “would be happy to see the victory of Syrians who have been studying John Stuart Mill or who take their cue from Swedish social democracy,” which he warns is not going to happen.
By focusing on whether or not the rebels favor democracy, the United States risks falling into the same moral trap that ensnared it in Libya. There, Washington found itself supporting rebels who committed very similar atrocities to those committed by the forces it came to save them from, namely Qaddafi’s goons. A recently issued report from the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria accused Syrian rebels of "war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture . . . perpetrated by anti-government armed groups." The American media paid little attention to reports that nearly half of those killed in Syria are not rebels or civilians on their side—but Alawite. Both sides almost never take prisoners, but kill those who surrender. And the rebels put snipers on roofs of schools in session.
The accusations are reminiscent of the findings of the International Commission of Inquiry charged with investigating human-rights abuses in Libya, where it was concluded that anti-Qaddafi forces committed a broad range of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including “extra-judicial executions, torture, enforced disappearance and indiscriminate attacks and pillage.” Similarly, Amnesty International released a report detailing war crimes committed by the rebels beginning as early as February 2011, including the detention, torture and lynching of pro-Qaddafi loyalists (as well as some who were only assumed to be pro-Qaddafi). Those who weren’t murdered were tortured with electric rods and beaten with belts, sticks and metal bars.
After that conflict ended, Western observers found mass graves. Many of the bodies were discovered shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs, execution style. Reports indicate that the rebels often did not wait to determine if people were actually involved in the fighting, but assumed, because of where they were or what they looked like, that they were Qaddafi loyalists and immediately jailed, brutalized and killed them.
Evidence shows that black Libyans and foreign migrant workers were specifically targeted by the rebels in what appear to be acts of ethnic cleansing. African Union chairman Jean Ping said that the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC) assumes that “all blacks are mercenaries… They are killing people, normal workers, mistreating them.” Reporters have witnessed the abuse of hundreds of black Africans, who have been detained, beaten, and killed indiscriminately. Additionally, rebels have been accused of frequent and widespread rape of women in the black refugee camps outside Tripoli.
Entire cities have been turned into ghost towns. Residents of Tawergha, which was a Qaddafi stronghold during the conflict, were reportedly forced out of their homes when rebels took the city. Most buildings were destroyed and many ransacked. Though Tawergha had been used as a base by Qaddafi supporters, there is evidence that the attack on its primarily black population was racially motivated. People have been abducted off the streets and forced to relocate to refugee camps, simply for being from Tawergha. It is just one of the towns that faced retribution; more reports of “disappeared” villages and ransacked cities are now surfacing. Zlitan, another town taken by the rebels, has become a ghost town. The NTC has thus far declined to investigate the massacre of over fifty people in Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown. Human Rights Watch has called those killings an “apparent mass execution.”
Now, in Syria, the same situation seems to be repeating itself again. Rebel groups have been accused of the indiscriminate shelling of civilian villages as well as the defiling of enemy corpses, most dramatically when a rebel commander cut the heart out of the corpse of a progovernment fighter and ate part of it. And there are present reports of the opposition’s use of child soldiers, as well as their extrajudicial executions of progovernment civilians. The UN’s top human-rights official, Navi Pillay, has declared that “wanton human rights violations are also being committed by anti-government groups.” Human Rights Watch found that Syrian rebels have kidnapped, detained, and tortured both government fighters and supporters—and that some of these crimes are religiously and ethnically motivated, targeting the Shia and Alawites.
In short, it is often difficult to see whether the rebels are less in violation of the rules of armed conflict and basic humanitarian norms than are the progovernment forces.
Before Washington addresses the questions of arming rebels that may not be prodemocracy or arms that may end up in the wrong hands, it should condition support of any and all kinds on the rebels refraining from committing atrocities. The United States is duty bound to use whatever leverage it has to make them adhere to this moral minimum long before it considers the higher normative considerations of what kind of regime they would promote once they gain power. Otherwise, Americans become accomplices to the crimes against humanity some Syrians are committing.
We are used to thinking about such conflicts in terms of good versus bad guys. If it is true that both sides are acting in a barbaric fashion, we should either insist that whoever we support adheres to a moral minimum—or we should stay out of this conflict.
Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World .